Congratulations on your retirement…wtf!

So, I’m on vacation waiting for my retirement at the end of this month.  I’ve worked long and hard and most people wouldn’t begrudge me some rest.  Still, I’m not sure why people congratulate me on my retirement.  What is there to be congratulated about?  Managing to stay employed for so long?  Staying alive until 65?  Getting irretrievably older?  Not having to go to work anymore?  Being able to ‘do what I want?’  I’ve asked some people why they just congratulated me on my retirement and they sometimes pick one of the above reasons or they just shrug their shoulders.  It’s just something people do.  I’m sorry, but I find it annoying, but also very instructive.

Since the ‘industrial revolution’ there’s been a strong desire among our handlers, the ruling class, to get us to work without complaining, and even, maybe, to like it and, of course, to shit all over anyone who doesn’t share this ‘work ethic.’  Protestantism was essentially created as an ideological support for the idea that working hard and without complaining at our ‘calling’ was next to godliness.  Of course, a lot of people don’t work at their ‘calling,’ nor are they especially happy about their work unless they’re heavily sedated or medicated.  Work is pretty much a drag and we all know it.  Oh, some people get to do what they want in life, but they’re pretty scarce.  If you ask people if they would do what they do for a living without getting paid for it, a precious few would say yes.  After all, we work to live and not the other way around.  I always made a point of asking my students where they live.  None gave me their work address.  We don’t ‘live’ at work, we ‘live’ at home.  We work at work and don’t think of it as part of our lives.  Now, I’m writing here about life in the ‘industrialized’ countries.  What goes on in a rice field in Thailand is anyone’s guess.  A lot depends on who owns it and whether or not it actually sustains life in any meaningful way, I presume.

But to get back to the issue, work is a four-letter word.  A clue to how we really feel about our work ‘life’ is to congratulate people when they exit it.  “Geez, how does it feel to get off the ol’ treadmill, eh?”   The answer is supposed to be: “Aw, yeah, feels great.”  [Silently: “if I only had enough money now to enjoy it.”]  But, of course, I’m generalizing here.  Some people are quite happy and wealthy in their retirements.  But I’m not referring here only to retirement, which is a permanent retreat from work.  I’m also writing here about vacations.  If work is so great, why do we constantly need a vacation from it?  How often do you hear people saying “Boy, do I need a vacation.”  All the time.  Everywhere.

But there’s more.  Not only do we congratulate people who retire and long for vacations when we work, we are really ignorant about it. We call people lazy who lay about watching TV, we deride people who go on state-sponsored ski vacations, we treat the unemployed like crap…yet we yearn to be just like them.  We crave the idle life.  We long for leisure.  Work is this must thing we do, like taking bad tasting medicine for a cold.  Not surprisingly, either, because for most of us we have no control over our work, who we work with, the equipment we use, or the products or services we produce. [Again, this isn’t true for everyone, but it is for the vast majority of us.]  The only real interest most of us have in our jobs is our paycheque (and benefits, if we’re lucky enough to have them).  Take that away and there isn’t much left.  Still, all is not lost, as Karl Marx argued, in ancient Rome where slavery was the vehicle for the accumulation of wealth, slaves were 100% owned and controlled by ‘the ruling class.’  In the Middle Ages, when peasants were indentured to their masters, they had about 20% of their time to themselves and for themselves.  During the more recent ‘capitalist, industrial’ era, we spend roughly a third of the 168 hours a week we have at our disposal at work (as well as getting to and from work).  I’m talking averages here.  In the following era when people will all (for all intents and purposes) be unemployed (replaced by automated tools, factories, etc.) we’ll be 100% without masters. [Don’t laugh, it’s not that far down the road]  Strange as it may seem.  When the capitalist mode of production succeeds in eliminating employment as we know it, life will be a lot different.  We’ll still ‘work,’ but not for a wage.  Now we think of this idea as absolutely outrageous and dumb, but then it will seem quite normal, just as normal as it would have been to be a slave in ancient Rome.

So, in the end, we’ll get what we want: a job free world.  Retirement starting at birth!  Permanent vacation!  Yeah!  Because efficiency to business means the elimination of workers.  The ultimate efficiency is a factory that employs no one, not even maintenance personnel (that can be handled remotely, by robots, etc).  Problem is, who will they sell the products they make to?  It’s the ultimate business conundrum…and most business people don’t even know it exits.

A Commie I’m not. A crusty old Marxist, maybe.

So, we had a big party at the homestead recently and I was lovingly described as a communist by my son-in-law. I appreciate the sentiment behind this remark.  For him, it’s a term of endearment.  There were many ‘left-leaners’ in the crowd who would have appreciated the comment because in some senses we share many moral precepts.  Oh, I’ve been described as a commie before.  It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last in all likelihood.  I really don’t mind all that much.  Whether or not people actually believe that I’m a communist is another matter and I hope to set the record straight here for anyone who cares.  If people read this blog posting,  and few will, they will know my position on the matter.  For my own sense of self, for myself, I want to set the record straight once and for all.

When I state that I’m not a commie, that doesn’t mean for one second that I’m a proponent of ‘capitalism.’  Many people see communism and ‘capitalism’ as opposites, as alternate ways of organizing ‘the economy’ and ‘society.’   I don’t, nor did Karl Marx when he got old enough to think straight.  As an aside, Harold Adams Innis, the brilliant Canadian political economist and historian said, in a moment of particular lucidity, that one cannot make a contribution to the social sciences before one reaches the age of 50 and he’s probably correct.  He was 58 when he died and his best work happened in the last 5 or 6 years of his life.  Marx was born in 1818 and died in 1883.  It wasn’t until the late 1860s that he really got his shit together, hunkered down in the British Museum and started writing Capital.  Yes, yes, he wrote the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts earlier, but he really got serious later.

The reason I say I’m not a communist is that I’m not a proponent of communism.  For me, or anyone else, to be labeled a communist or anything else for that matter implies a certain level of advocacy, of ‘proponency.’  It’s not necessary to be proponent of something that will eventually happen no matter what we think or wish.  It’s like being described as an old-agist.  I know that old age will happen to all of us, but that doesn’t mean I’m a proponent of old age.  I’M getting old, but that doesn’t mean that I advocate old age. That would be ridiculous.  A communist mode of production will inevitably replace the capitalist one because the internal contradictions within the capitalist mode of production dictate it in the same way the feudal relations of production replaced slave based ones and the capitalist mode of production replaced feudal ones.  The change will happen gradually, just as old age creeps up on us.  Before it’s clear what’s happening, the old bones get brittle, the arteries plug up and the organs just can’t cut it anymore.  The resiliency of youth is past, old solutions no longer get the same results they used to.  Life inevitably brings on death, they are different sides of the same coin.  What that means for me as an individual is clear, what it means for ‘society’ or for the ‘capitalist mode of production’ is also clear.  Nothing is forever, nothing.  Not the capitalist mode of production, not our beloved countries, not our cities, not our towns, not our fabulous wealth.  The question is not whether or not the capitalist mode of production will live on forever, but when it will die.  It’s not even a question of how.  That’s also been clear for a long time.  Still, classical economics is still in classical denial over the whole thing, a fact which is made clear on virtually every page of The Economist which is a proponent of capitalism.

For what I’ve written above I could be branded with the sin of determinism, one of scholarship’s seven deadliest.   If saying that one day I will die makes me a determinist, well that’s ok by me.  Call me whatever name you want.  Furthermore,  what I write above does not mean that life is completely meaningless to me.  We live life on many levels, a day at a time.  My life is full of activity and that means that every day I make many moral decisions most having nothing or little to do with my eventual death.  I don’t  live life as though my life is about to end (I didn’t do that even when I had cancer and the possibility of my quick exit from this life was very real).  I DO things, there is nothing else to do.  I read the papers, listen to the radio and watch TV.  I play with my grandkids.  I can’t help but get outraged by the blatant bullshit and crap that comes out of the government in Ottawa on a daily basis.  Yet I understand  the role that national governments play in the capitalist mode of production and their essential collaboration in making it possible for capital to flow with greater and greater ease globally  and for controlling labour by keeping tight reins on migrations and regulation.  I haven’t lost my moral compass.  I even get angry on one level…say, at incivility, at stupid driving, at poor highway engineering…while understanding that at other levels, the picture is much different and anger makes no sense.  As I write above, we live life on many levels, many planes.  They are all connected although not always in obvious ways.  Even otherwise highly educated people don’t see the connections.  The connections, interconnections and interweavings become visible only after a sustained gaze upon them.  To see them requires special training.  Somewhere, Norbert Elias got that training, as did many other thinkers who have had a sustained influence on me over the decades.

Apparently, staring is rude, even for an 8 month old baby.

I’m reading Norbert Elias’ The Civilizing Process, the edition I have being published in 1994, but which is really a compilation of  two earlier separate works entitled the History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization both from 1939.  It’s a long, involved and complicated book, a detailed historical sociology rivalling Max Weber’s work.  At the moment I’m reading his fascinating account of the evolution of the use of table implements like the knife, spoon and fork and their moral implications.  He writes that it took centuries from the first appearance of the two pronged fork on the European scene in the early Middle Ages as an implement usually made of gold or silver and strictly used by the upper nobility to its more general use only three centuries later.

Normally I wouldn’t write about a book while still in the process of reading it, but in this case I’m not reviewing his book and it turns out Elias’ analysis provides a great backdrop for something that happened to me today in an elevator.  Carolyn and I were rushing around looking for a cash machine in a mall at 555 West 12th Street in Vancouver, BC., not that the location has any particular significance.  The same event probably could have happened in a number of similar locations.  So what happened was this: We chase around the mall for a bit looking for a cash machine and eventually find one, get some cash and head back to the elevator to get back to the parkade, one floor below.  A woman also waited at the elevator.  She pushed a stroller into the elevator as the door opened and we all got in, but just before she did that she turned to me and said: “He hasn’t learned yet that it’s impolite to stare at people.”  Well, alright.  So I asked her, “How old is he?”  She replied: “eight months.” At which point, the sociologist in me kicked in and I told her that it was a little too early in his life to be learning manners as complicated as not staring or averting the eyes.  She probably thought I was just a nutty old man and left it at that, but she definitely had the old moral wall on her mind.  No way was she going to let her son break an inviolable rule of etiquette such as not staring and she just wished she could enforce it on him even at his tender age.  At least she didn’t hit him for it.

Granted, the use of forks has very little in common with not staring at someone when it comes to etiquette.  Still, they are both things that ‘are not done.’  That is if you want to be accepted as part of a civilized society.  Savages and pagans stare and eat with their fingers, but not civilized people.  The study of manners is the study of morality, who is part of my world and who isn’t.  We struggle constantly with whether or not we ‘fit in.’  In saying that I’m not breaking any social scientific sound barriers.  Sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists have long been interested in manners.  They open an impressive window into what we will accept as ‘civilized’ behaviour.  Their evolution is key to understanding a multitude of other social relations.

That said, I’m a little concerned for the little tike I met in the stroller on the elevator in the mall at 555 West 12th Avenue in Vancouver.  His mother seems to be hyper sensitive to etiquette rule violations.  If it’s true that children hear ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ 40,000 times before they enter kindergarten, this little guy might be in for maybe 60 or 70 thousand ‘nos and ‘don’ts.’  By  the time he gets to kindergarten, he may be so hemmed in by his mother’s imaginary moral wall that he will have difficulty turning around without scraping an elbow.

Class: What is it?

On Class: A script for the Knowledge Network Sociology Series.

By: Roger Albert

© 1993 Knowledge Network.

 

Boy, that guy sure has class!  Have you ever heard that before?  Or maybe you’ve heard: she doesn’t have much money, but she’s sure got class!  Well, what do we mean by class in this context?  We can’t just say “well, you know what I mean”…because this is a sociology course and sociologists don’t say “well, you know what I mean.” Sociologist need more than that.  As sociologists we can’t assume that other people know what we mean, or that we share their meanings with them.  So what DO we mean by class here?  I think that we’re communicating a whole lot of things when we talk about class like this. although I think that we’re mostly unconscious of the content of this kind of communication and its symbolic significance.  We can tell a bit about what’s important to us, and what we value by paying attention to the hidden messages in our conversations.  Implicit in the notion of class as I just used it in my examples is the fact that in our society people have different incomes, occupations and educational levels and those who have lots of income, prestigious occupations and lots of education are better than people who don’t .  They can afford to dress expensively, drive new luxury cars, eat in “classy” restaurants.  We admire them, wish we were like them and see them as being successful.  People who are less wealthy but who have discriminating tastes and try to emulate the people who have more are given thumbs up for giving it a good shot.  It also happens, of course, that we run across the comment: boy, that guy’s loaded, but he’s got no class at all! In this case, we have expectations of what rich people do, how they behave, you know, swavely, and we are disappointed when an obviously wealthy person doesn’t live up to our stereotypes and expectations.

 

Thorstein Veblen, an American economic historian and social philosopher who died in 1929 wrote a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class.  In this book he explains that we can relate to people just above and just below us on the social scale.  We are scared as hell of dropping down a notch and we’d sure like to catch up to the Joneses.  As regular people we can’t relate to people whose lives are so different from ours, that is, members of the leisure class, that class of very wealthy people who don’t need to work, at least not in the way most of us think of work.  They tinker with their stocks and bonds, or hire other people to even do that.  They invest.  They don’t collect wages or a salary.  They are the David Rockefellers of the world.   But let’s get back to basics.  Class, what is it?  Is it simply an attitude, a set of behaviours that we see as cool, calm and collected?

 

Well, class is different things to different people.  There’s a major difference in the way a structural functionalist or liberal sociologist and a conflict theorist or Marxist conceive of class.  And their conceptions have little in common with the common view of class in the sense of “classy” restaurant.  I’ve got a dictionary of sociology that defines class as a totality of persons having one or more common characteristics.  Class, according to the dictionary, may or may not signify the existence of a hierarchical scale of social power.  There are age, nativity, occupational, industrial, social, ideo-politico-economic, and income classes says the dictionary, but races and nationalities don’t qualify as classes although they divide the population.

 

In the “m” section of the same dictionary, we find the definition of middle class.  It says here that the concept of middle class used to really mean something in the 19th century, but that now most of us think of ourselves as middle class:  intellectual workers with moderate incomes, skilled artisans, prosperous farmers, white collar workers and salaried employees of large mercantile and financial establishments.   According to the dictionary, they have few common economic interests and whatever unity they possess lies in their standard of living and ideals of family life, their mores and recreational interests.  Well, this dictionary was first published in 1941 and it isn’t politically correct anymore (although my copy was printed in 1970).  The dictionary definition of class is basically a liberal definition whereby class is defined in subjective terms, by the way people think of themselves and describe themselves.  Not all sociologists are happy with that definition, however, and some think that the word class is too ambiguous or ideologically charged to be much good to use in a scientific study of society.  They want to be able to measure class objectively, recognizing that people don’t all have the same standard of living.  In doing so, they borrow a term from geology, stratification, which describes how the earth’s crust gets layered over millions of years via sedimentation and other processes.  Sociologically, the term refers exclusively to one’s relationship with the market…at the level of consumption.  If I can buy more than you, I’m higher class.  Class in this sense is separated from what is considered a person’s political and social status.  All three phases of life, class, status and political power constitute the context of the distribution of power in society.  This way of thinking also fits with the ideas that in our society, politics, business. education, law. etc., are all separate and independent spheres of activity and power in one is totally unrelated to power in another.  From this perspective, class can be measured objectively and people can be ranked on the basis of income, occupation and education.

 

A conflict theorist or Marxist would say that the concept of stratification is fine but it doesn’t explain much.  Sure, some people are rich and some aren’t, but just because a person is wealthy doesn’t mean that that person is powerful.  Win a lottery and get rich, sure, but do you have power? Depends on what you mean by power.  If we think that the ability to purchase things is power then we might think of the wealthy as powerful, no matter what the source of their wealth.  If we believe this, we are basically subscribing to a liberal view of the world.  The conflict theorist looks for the source of power elsewhere, at least initially…in the production and reproduction of wealth and ownership of the tools to recreate wealth…that is the factories, mines, mills, etc..  From this perspective, the basic class division is between the owners of the means of production (mines, mills, etc) and those who work for  the owners of the means of production and who are dependent on them for their livelihoods.  And the issue here is not relative individual power, Bill Gates versus you and I, but in the role that the owning and working classes play historically in the evolution of capitalism.  In this way of thinking, the affluent worker, who may hang out at the club and work in the highest offices in the highest sky scrappers downtown, is relatively wealthy, maybe, but is still dependent on the owning class.  And the determining factor for class analysis is not the worker’s affluence or poverty, but his or her dependence.  From a structural conflict perspective, its not the fact that there is social inequality based on relative wealth that’s important, but the problem of access to the opportunities to get that wealth.  That’s the difference between equality of condition and equality of opportunity, but that’s a topic for another day.

The collectivity that is ‘I’

After reading Norbert Elias’ What is Sociology and having taught the subject for 36 years myself, I’m struck by what it takes to make a person(ality) and reminded of the complexity of the task.  As the symbolic interactionists among us are quick to point out, we, as individuals, are a product of our interactions with ‘others.’  Charles Horton Cooley even refers to the ‘looking glass’ self in emphasizing the notion that our person(alities) are socially created.  Thinking about it for even a moment makes that fact clear.  What language would you speak if you weren’t ‘created’ socially?  What kinds of things would you believe?  So, given that we have a certain bio-genetic reality which is  itself socially created (what is the sexual act if it’s not a social one?), we are ‘constructed’ in our interactions with others.  ‘Others’ here must be taken quite broadly to include not just people close to us, but also people (and I would also include other species of animal and even ‘things’ very broadly determined) far removed from us in time (grandparents, relatives, etc.) and space (neighbours, local people, etc.).  In fact, ‘others are no less socially created than we are, of course. Our person(alities) are virtually collective realities that wouldn’t exist outside of the collectivity or collectivities.  So, we probably shouldn’t refer to ourselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we.’ Of course the Queen does that when she refers to herself using the royal ‘we.’  She does it because she represents the state and so she includes all citizens of the Commonwealth when she refers to herself in the third person.  If I were to use ‘we’ to refer to myself, I would include all the people, including myself, in all of our interactions and interweavings, who had a hand in ‘raising’ me and making me what I am.  Which would mean that if I were diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any of the other thousands of ‘disorders’ that are found in the DSM-5, the psychiatric bible of disorders, I would have to say that ‘we’ have bipolar disorder.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But what other conclusion can I reach?  This is the conclusion R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz (both psychiatrists) came to with regards to schizophenia and they were soundly criticized for it and symbolically beaten up by their ‘colleagues’ for even suggesting such a heresy.

And heresy it is.  The reason that this is such a heretical idea is that we have clung to the idea for a long time now that we, as individuals, are the agents of our own destiny.  We have individual ‘free will,’ not collective free will.  [I’ll switch to I now for emphasis.]  I am responsible for my own actions.  That way if I work hard and get rich, I can say it was all my doing, and if I fail, I must feel the shame of it all by myself.  Others can do the same when they think about me.  They can judge me as a success or failure and they can (without a doubt) attribute that to my own actions.  If I commit a crime, it’s my responsibility and not a collective one.  After all we don’t send families to jail for the crimes of one family member, we send just that one person to jail.  This is an ideology, a way that we justify and explain ourselves to ourselves and to others, based in the early days of the capitalist mode of production when the ‘individual’ was created, a crucial state of being for entering into contractual agreements.  Fernand Braudel argues this in his awesome three volume tome on early capitalism as does George Duby in his introduction to A History of Private Life, a book he edited that was published in 1988.  Others too have taken up the challenge of putting our individuality fetish into a social, historical and political context.  C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, published in 1962, traces our love affair with individualism to Locke and Hobbes (I would throw in Descartes too) but anchors his views in a clearly dialectical framework, with material life still leading ideas in the end.

I could go on for a long time on this topic.  In fact, I want to turn this discussion to Durkheim and Collins in my next post.  They argue (along with many others) that God is a symbol for society.  So, when we say that we are created by God, we are really saying that we are created by society.  Let’s see where that takes us.